When to See a Doctor for Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Pink Eye
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Pink eye, conjunctivitis, is one of the most common of eye complaints. The conjunctiva, a thin, clear tissue that lines the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye (sclera) becomes inflamed, which causes redness, itching, burning, excessive tearing, and discharge from the eye. Doctors estimate there are about 3 million cases of pink eye in the United States every year, mostly among children. Most often, pink eye goes away on its own and the main concern is to keep it from spreading to others.

Common Causes of Pink Eye

Pink eye can be caused by a virus, bacteria, allergens or irritants but it is the viral form of pink eye that is highly contagious. Schools can be affected by outbreaks of pink eye because it is so contagious.

  • Viral conjunctivitis: Viral pink eye can be spread through the air. It is often associated with colds and upper airway infections. When someone with viral pink eye sneezes or coughs, the droplets can spread the infection, which is why it is so contagious. It can also be transmitted through direct contact. For example, people who have the infection may touch their eye with a finger and then touch an object (like a door knob) or bring an object like a towel or makeup applicator to their face and someone else uses the contaminated object.

  • Bacterial conjunctivitis: Pink eye caused by bacteria is generally spread by direct contact.

  • Allergic conjunctivitis: Allergies can cause pink eye when the allergen, such as dust or pollen, is airborne and gets into the eye. Allergic pink eye is not contagious.

  • Irritant or chemical conjunctivitis: This type of pink eye is similar to allergic pink eye as it is not contagious. It is caused by exposure to an irritant, such as swimming pool chlorine or pollution in the air.

Pink Eye Treatment at Home

Pink eye symptoms can often be treated at home. Here are some tips that may help relieve the itching and burning feeling caused by the inflammation in your eye:

  • Gently wipe your eyes with a clean, wet cloth (one clean cloth per eye), from the inside of your eye to the outside. Do not use the same cloth on both eyes.

  • Apply cold or warm compresses on your eyes, depending on which is most comfortable.

  • Apply artificial eye drops according to the label’s instructions. Avoid touching the applicator directly to your eye.

  • Do not immediately use antibiotic eye drops. If you have a viral infection, these eye drops will not be effective.

  • For allergic pinkeye, antihistamine drugs and allergy eye drops may be helpful in reducing the discomfort.

  • For irritant pink eye, removing yourself from the environment and using artificial eye drops may help ease the symptoms.

To prevent spreading the infection or re-infecting yourself, here are a few tips:

  • If you wear soft or disposable contact lenses, take them out and do not put them back in. You will likely need new lenses to prevent recontamination. If you wear hard lenses, they must be disinfected before using them again after the infection has gone away.

  • Throw away your eye makeup and applicators to avoid recontamination.

  • Do not share towels or face cloths.

  • Dispose all tissues that come in contact with your face directly in the trash.

When to See a Doctor for Pink Eye

Although most cases of pink eye go away without a doctor’s care, there are some times when you should see your doctor as soon as possible for pink eye symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe eye drops to help relieve the symptoms or to treat bacterial conjunctivitis. Times when you should see a doctor for pink eye include:

  • You have a depressed or weakened immune system, which makes it harder to fight infections.

  • You develop pain in one or both eyes.

  • You develop a sensitivity to light.

  • Your vision becomes blurry.

  • Your symptoms continue or worsen.

  • You are using antibiotic drops for a bacterial infection and the symptoms are not going away.

  • You develop a fever and other signs of an infection, such as swollen glands or fatigue.

  • You have an eye condition unrelated to conjunctivitis.

Who to See for Pink Eye

Most often, the doctor who would treat you for pink eye would be your family doctor or primary care physician. If there are any complications, you continuously develop conjunctivitis, or treatment by your doctor is not successful, you may be referred to an ophthalmologist, an eye specialist. Check with your insurance company to verify if you need a referral from your primary doctor before seeing an ophthalmologist.

Pink eye is so common that most families have had one family member come home with the infection. The good news is it most often goes away on its own after a few days without any medical interventions.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 11
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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